Forerunner in digital prototyping
About Apollo Engineering
Engineering consultancy firm for the machine building industry
Apollo Engineering is an engineering consultancy firm for the machine building industry. Since 1986, we have been providing customization for the machine building industry from the heart of Friesland. With twenty-five employees, Apollo Engineering provides complete engineering of machines and the mechanical engineering design, including its management. The machines are built entirely in our assembly hall and are extensively tested.
The company has been a forerunner since its founding in 1986; both in terms of completed projects and process management and in their use of CAD software. The long list of impressive references is no coincidence. Over the years, Apollo Engineering has designed, assembled, and tested machines in-house for companies such as Douwe Egberts, Friesland Foods, Haribo, Nestlé, Philips, and Sonnema.
Packing and unpacking line
One of the projects the Frisians are currently working on is a packing and unpacking line for Coca Cola bottles. Apollo Engineering is specially designing this line for an import and export company in Belgium that purchases bottled Coca Cola from Poland and the Benelux region before reselling the drink in Spain. Martinus van der Meulen, co-founder and director of Apollo, explains how the line operates:
'In principle, the line basically consists of two lines that are about 23-metres long. Several pick points have been built into roughly one-third of the lanes. Four full crates, holding 24 bottles each, are manually loaded at a time onto the left-hand lane. The bottles are removed from the crates by a suction device before being placed onto the four output conveyor belts. Next, each row of bottles passes a stickering station where each bottle receives a Spanish-language sticker.'
The stickers (labels) are randomly placed onto the body of the bottles. 'That was a conscious decision on our part,' points out Van der Meulen. 'In principle, you could place the new sticker on top of the original one on the bottle's neck, but the optical equipment this requires is prohibitively expensive. Besides, if the original stickers remain visible, you can always identify where a particular batch comes from.'
Once the bottles have their new stickers – this machine can process about 40,000 bottlers per hour at about eight seconds per sticker – the rows of bottles are again organized into the correct pattern and are loaded into the four Spanish crates waiting for them on another line. Next, the full crates are loaded onto palettes, still mainly by hand, and the batch is prepared for sale in Spain.
Handling by one machine
The original crates, now empty, are placed into storage. When the Spanish deposit bottles return to Belgium in Spanish crates, via a different process, they are loaded back into their original crates on the packing and unpacking line and are shipped back to the company where they came from.
Van der Meulen continues, 'We specially designed this top loader so that all of the handling could be performed by one machine. It's common to see a top loader functioning either as a case packer or an extractor. What makes this machine so handy is that it can handle both processes. This is possible in part because the machine uses a freely programmable horizontal and vertical servo drive. This flexibility enables the machine to make the necessary 'umbrella movement' for each of the four 'pick and place' positions and to transfer the bottle-filled crates.
Designing the packing and unpacking line
Clearly, designing a complete packing and unpacking line involves extensive calculations and draughting work. 'But Apollo has extensive experience with this,' adds Bert Assen, Mechanical Sales Manager at Autodesk-reseller Cadac. Assen has known the people at Apollo for a long time, and he is well aware of Apollo's role as a forerunner in the north in Computer Aided Design (CAD). When it comes to the field of CAD, this Oldeboorn-based technical design and consulting firm has led the industry for years. Along with Phillips, they were one of the first companies in the north to begin using Autodesk Inventor, the 3D design package.
Like other Apollo projects, an Autodesk package is the foundation of the Coca Cola line. 'Previously we worked mainly with 2D AutoCAD software, now the order of the day is the 3D design package Inventor Professional. 'Naturally that developed over time,' comments van der Meulen. 'We had worked for some time with AutoCAD, so we were able to logically assess the capabilities of Inventor when it came on the market. After a thorough analysis of all available mechanical engineering packages, we decided that Inventor best suited our needs.'
When asked about the advantages of a package like Inventor, both van der Meulen and Assen quickly respond with the term 'digital prototyping'. 'As far as we're concerned,' van der Meulen explains, 'Inventor has a very high added value. We now no longer go to our prospects with a 2D drawing; instead we take a laptop. We provide an immediate first look at our concept by presenting our plans in 3D. We can even present the project in 4D to show how the project works over time. So, in terms of presentations, we took a substantial step forward with Inventor, but also in terms of cost reduction!'
With Inventor, you can design, analyse, and visualize something even before it is manufactured. In practice, what that means is that all of the tests and calculations that previously had to be performed with a physical prototype can now be performed digitally, and, based on this, they can be done at a much lower cost. If you make sure that your other software packages are fully compatible with your main design package – and that is really the essence of digital prototyping – then you can work toward the ideal model in an easier, more affordable, and more efficient manner.
Van der Meulen continues, 'The efficiency of our software, which we designed with AutoCAD Electrical, means that the control unit on our Coca Cola line contains relatively little. We brought some measurement points to the lines and the resultant data was collected in the control unit. The control unit also has a modem to remotely monitor the machine and potentially to perform a few minor adjustments. This software allowed us to quickly produce a very clean design.'More about Digital Prototyping
Everything digitally regulated
Bert Assen concurs with van der Meulen, explaining 'That's the exact message we want to give our customers in the mechanical engineering industry. In its ultimate form, digital prototyping involves everything being digitally regulated with fully compatible software solutions. The first line that you draw or the first raw design that you make can be stored and managed from a central location, so others are able to pick up from where you stopped, or to even move on while you're still working on your design.
For example, the software enables someone else to work on a revision on a certain part of the drawing while you're simultaneously working on the project. This ensures that the revision can be accomplished without causing any conflicts. Next, the electrical engineer designs the electrical circuitry, the mechanical engineer conducts his tests and calculations, and the people at the factory can view the compiled drawing from the same central location and assemble the machine.
3D design is the future
For the moment, however, digital prototyping remains more theory than practice. Plenty of preaching still needs to happen in the machine building industry. Not only do many companies still work with paper drawings, but it also appears that, over the years, there has been runway growth in software packages and programming languages, which can definitely hinder standardization. No one disputes that digital prototyping is the future.
Research carried out by Aberdeen Group, on which the 'Benchmark Report - The Transition from 2D Drafting to 3D Modelling' was based, has shown that the companies achieving the best results are the same companies that have implemented the digital prototyping concept the furthest. These best-in-class companies appear to produce 1.4 times fewer prototypes than lesser performing companies, they have six times fewer change orders, and they launch their product nearly 100 days sooner. These companies all appear more or less to use CAD tools for their activities, and they make use of 3D design capabilities. Surely reason enough to at least consider investing in digital prototyping.